What with the endless parade of World War II movies out there that’s focused on the efforts of the British or the Americans, it’s easy to forget that one of the major points of a world war is that it includes… y’know, the world.
It’s with this in mind that we approach Max Manus: Man Of War, a movie that aims to shed some light on the Nazi occupation of Norway and bring the story to the titular saboteur to a larger audience.
To be honest, I’m not a massive fan of biopics due to the fact that they normally have to cram years and years of incident into a limited time frame while still trying to keep its main subject from becoming nothing more than an enigma. But while Max Manus (the “Man Of War” subtitle was added overseas for those who understandably had no idea who this guy was – possibly a jellyfish?) does in fact fall into a couple of these pitfalls, it still emerges as a war film that gives us a fresh perspective on the most cinema-friendly conflict in human history.
After a stint volunteering with the Russians fighting in the Winter War in Finland, young Max Manus is still idealistic despite being troubled by his harrowing experiences and upon arriving back in Nazi occupied Norway, Max unsurprisingly falls on with the local resistance movement. However, after a short time producing illegal propaganda, his admittedly overconfident cell is soon sniffed out; but after escaping troops by first concussing himself by diving out a window and then sneaking out of the hospital when he is well enough to flee. Manus ends up in Scotland soaking up Commando training in sabotage and when he finally gets back home, he and his friend Gregers, he gets to work using limped mines blowing holes in German supply ships moored at the local docks.
Before you can say “mach schnell”, Max unsurprisingly becomes the Gestapo’s public enemy number one and chief Siegfried Fehmer goes above and beyond with acts of cruelty in an attempt to smoke Manus out, but the saboteur seems to have an almost supernatural knack for avoiding capture. As time goes on, Max, Gregers and a third friend, Gunnar, form the Oslo gang and start putting a sizable dent in the German war machine.
Of course, war is war and the sheer brutality of this drawn out attrition starts to pick off the members of the Oslo gang one by one as Fehmer’s efforts finally start to bear bloody fruit and as Max loses friend after friend, the survivor’s guilt starts to set in and he struggles to start a relationship with “Tikken”, a Norwegian contact for the British consulate. What will end first, Max’s luck or the war itself?
Max Manus is quite an interesting example of the war movie as it’s one that’s far more interested in the clandestine world of sabotage than it is in protracted battle scenes and muddy trenches. In trying to fight a battle on your own doorstep, the movie tells a buttoned down story that somehow skims over numerous aspects, yet still manages to dedicate enough time to them to make certain themes resonate. The most interesting theme the movie tackles is the survivors guilt Max is continuously wracked with as the continuing toll of the battle starts to strip his list of friends down to the bone and the more he loses, the more his luck holds out. Be it surviving through the icy chaos of the Winter War to his absurd, hope-for-the-best dive out of a window to avoid authorities (a story that amusingly precedes him from then on), to the freak accident where he accidently shoots himself in the leg and thus misses out on a mission that goes horribly sour – every friend lost becomes an extra weight around his neck as he continues to keep on truckin’. It’s an interesting route to take that neatly pays tribute to the fallen while simultaneously hinting that even with every success, Manus’ actions caused swift and terrible ramifications to either his buddies or the city in general – the Nazi’s response to some sunk ships is to start arresting and interrogating dock workers.
If there’s an issue with this approach is that due to the film keeping a fairly steady pace as it whizzes through the years, leaving some parts of the story without much room to breathe. The Olso gang’s first mission breezes past without incident and subsequent set pieces zing past like sniper’s bullets – they raise the heart rate but they’ve flown past before you have time to register them – but some still manage to pack a brief punch, such as the novel trick Max firing a machine gun while frantically peddling a bicycle to freedom.
The same kind of goes for any character who isn’t Max and they mostly pass in a blur, tragically only becoming memorable the moment they cash in their mortal chips, but Aksel Hennie’s quiet, low-key presence gives the film a calming centre as it briskly power walks through history. Similarly, the efforts of Ken Duken’s Gestapo chief gives our lead a tangible villain to lock horns with even though the two don’t actually get to be face to face until the war is over.
Directed by the team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, you wouldn’t expect such a brooding war flick to come from the duo who made the female led comedy western Bandidas (and who also went on to make the fifth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie), but their economical story telling greatly helps us navigate leap frogging through time while still managing to zero in on the emotionally resonant moments. Finally, even though I’m as far away from being a historian as you can probably get (I can’t even remember my own history), I have it on decent authority that Max Manus is fairly accurate when it comes to laying out what actually happened when it comes to the grander end of scale – although it admittedly blurs some of the people involved into other characters for neatness sake.
Skillfully and smartly negotiating over the usual biopic gripes with cool detachment, Max Manus cherry picks enough relevant moments to economically tell a lesser known war story that brings the conflict home – to the Max.